Infants' responses to surprising events are linked to later cognitive ability. (Credit: Johns Hopkins University Laboratory for Child Development,

BALTIMORE, Md. — The most curious babies become the most curious toddlers and may grow up to become the most intelligent adults, according to a new study.

A first-of-its-kind study finds that months-old babies most captivated by magic tricks become the most curious toddlers. This suggests a pre-talking baby’s level of interest in surprising aspects of the world remains constant over time. Moreover, scientists from Johns Hopkins University say it could even predict their future intelligence.

“Something about a baby’s curiosity about magic tricks is predicting how curious they become as preschoolers,” says Professor Lisa Feigenson, co-director of the Laboratory for Child Development, in a university release.

“What the data suggest is that some three-year-olds have a leg up or seem particularly well positioned to learn a lot about the world.”

Examining the wow factor of babies

Feigenson says before the study little was known about curiosity in the pre-verbal mind, as curiosity has mainly been studied in much older children and adults. Feigenson and lead author Jasmin Perez, a Johns Hopkins graduate student, add they decided to address a constant frustration with the classic experimental method for studying the mental processes of babies.

In those experiments, babies are shown regular objects and objects behaving in surprising, unexpected ways. Many but not all babies tend to look longer at the unexpected events. Some will stare and stare at a car that seems to float in mid-air or a ball that seems to pass through a solid wall. Other babies will just take a glimpse and yawn.

Researchers assumed the variability was due to babies being babies; maybe they’re fussy, hungry, or distracted. However, Prof. Feigenson and Ms. Perez suspected something important was happening.

“We started to wonder if maybe all of that individual variability is actually meaningful, and tells us that babies are responding to the world differently, from baby to baby,” Perez says.

To find out, they launched an experiment where they studied 65 babies over time. At 11 months-old, some babies were shown a toy that behaved normally, while others saw the toy seemingly pass straight through a wall. Six months later, the babies now saw either a new toy that behaved normally, or seemed to float in mid-air.

“We found babies who looked really long at magical objects at 11 months were the same babies that looked really long at magical objects at 17 months,” Perez continues. “Babies are affected by these magical events in different ways, and these ways appear to be stable across a six-month period during infancy.”

The possible link between curiosity and IQ

Study authors report there was also little change in the least interested babies over the six-month period. To determine whether the difference among babies was predictive of future thinking, the researchers originally wanted to bring the participants back to the lab after they turned three but, because of the pandemic, they instead sent their parents standardized curiosity questionnaires.

Results show babies who looked longest at events that defied their expectations were the ones whose parents rated them as most curious in an information-seeking, problem-solving way. That type of curiosity is most likely to help children learn about the world.

Prof. Feigenson’s lab previously discovered that the magical, expectation-defying events are learning opportunities for babies. The new findings, which show some youngsters are better at noticing surprising events in the first place, raise the possibility that some are better positioned to learn. The team plans further follow-up studies with the same group of children to see just how long lasting and broad the individual differences among the children become.

“One reason these results are exciting is they open the door to so many other important questions,” Prof. Feigenson concludes. “What does it mean for the children in the future? Are these kids also rated as most curious in middle school? Are those kids going to score highest on school achievement tests or IQ tests?”

The findings appear in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

SWNS writer Stephen Beech contributed to this report.

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